Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Why (did) do they do it?

Canadian Maher Arar

In the early days when revelations about the Bush regime's sabotage of the rule of law leaked out -- the Abu Ghraib photos, Jose Padilla's due process-free imprisonment, the "extraordinary" renditions for torture -- it was hard not to ask: why are they doing this? Besides being obvious violations of historic legal norms, these acts were also self-evidently counterproductive even in the most utilitarian calculus. If you want to make law-eschewing terrorists, act like one yourself. But that's what the Bush-Cheney regime did.

Eventually it became clear that, despite claims about protecting us from terrorists, they did it because they could. Cheney, Addington, Yoo et al. had an axe to grind: they wanted to prove that a U.S. President could get away with being an absolute monarch if he wanted. And they did.

It remained unclear how much Bush ever absorbed their monarchical ideal. These days, apparently Dick Cheney is distressed that his pet king didn't get around to pardoning his loyal henchman.

But, somewhat surprisingly, power was passed on to Obama's successor regime on January 20. And today Charlie Savage has published an extensive catalogue of instances in which the Obama folks have hung on to Bush's lawless policies. Apparently at least some of the new folks like the authoritarian state:
  • Elena Kagan, Obama's nominee for Solicitor General, thinks holding people without any legal process is just fine;
  • Leon Panetta at the CIA doesn't endorse waterboarding -- but he envisions asking for authority to go beyond "approved" interrogation techniques. We've seen where that leads.
  • Panetta thinks passing on suspected terrorists to other countries to hold and perhaps abuse without any legal process is just fine too.
  • And where some of these abuses might see the light in court proceedings, the Obama government has threatened the Brits if they open up torture stories and stopped our own federal judiciary from proceeding by a claim that "state secrets" would be revealed.
There is a pattern here.

So I have to ask again, why are they doing this? Besides inertia and protecting individuals that some people know who did some pretty bad things under Bush, what motivates Obama to continue the Bush policies?

An early guess on a factor that I'm sure contributes to these policies: today Obama is in Ottawa, Canada. Canada has come clean on the case of Maher Arar, one of its citizens who its police wrongly fingered to U.S. authorities as a terrorism suspect. The U.S. promptly shipped Arar off to be tortured in Syria for nine months. A Canadian inquiry determined that Arar was guilty of nothing (except Middle Eastern origins of course) and that led to the Canadian government paying Arar millions of dollars of compensation.

If Obama were to really reverse the Bush torture regime, our country too would be paying victims additional millions. The New York Times editorialized today in favor of such a gesture to Arar.

Do they do it because they don't want a flood of cases revealing abuse, cases that will cost a lot of money? Seems likely. How depressing.


Tina said...

They do it because this is what Empires do. Empires are built on wars, and wars on injustices and violence. When was the USA without wars? From the Native Americans to the Iraqis.
Obama will just be the same as all the others, but with more sophisticated speeches than Bush's.

Darlene said...

How depressing to think that these outrages will continue because the administration doesn't want to 'look back'. I am disappointed.

Rebecca Gordon said...

They do it because "they" (or "we"in our culpable ignorance) have, as Tina says, always done it. In particular, the United States has been researching, refining, teaching, and exporting torture in an intentional, organized way at least since the end of World War II. Today the United States has a vast institutionalized torture infrastructure, one that will not disappear with a change of administration.

What was different about the Bush Administration was that they judged it useful to raise the cover on torture. In order to keep us afraid of a new enemy, they showed us the lengths to which they are willing to go to "protect" us. So now a new segment of U.S. citizens can see what has long been visible to people living in the outposts of the empire - and to the poor and dark people in the prisons of this country.

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